Is your tongue trying to tell you something? When we talk about oral health, we automatically think of the teeth and gums. But, there’s much more to our mouths than a set of pearly whites. The mouth consists of teeth and gums (gingiva), but also supporting connective tissues, ligaments, bone, the hard and soft palate, mucosal tissue lining the mouth and throat, the lips, the salivary glands, the chewing muscles, the upper and lower jaws, the temporomandibular joints, and the tongue. Tongues aren’t just used for tasting and talking. The tongue is also a useful diagnostic tool, especially in the realm of Chinese medicine. Even conventionally, our tongues can tell us a thing or two about the state of our health. The tongue plays an important part in oral health. Importantly, the mouth is the beginning of our digestive system and a part of our immune system. Oral health covers a lot more than just our teeth. The tongue is a fascinating part of our anatomy and can actually tell us a lot more than you might think. Tongue Anatomy The tongue is a muscular organ in the mouth used to manipulate food for chewing and plays a part in the act of swallowing. It’s also the primary organ for taste, important for speech and has a role to play in cleaning the teeth. The upper surface of the tongue is covered with taste buds. Its sensitivity is due to the fact that it is richly supplied with nerves and blood vessels. There are two parts to the tongue, the oral part at the front of the mouth, and at the back is the pharyngeal part. For most of its length, the tongue is separated by fibrous tissue, resulting in the groove most people can see down the middle of the tongue. The tongue is kept moist by saliva. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Chinese medicine is a complete medical system, which uses the perceived laws of nature as rules for understanding disharmony and disease. This form of medicine has been around for over 5,000 years. TCM is based on the idea that energy, called qi (pronounced "chee"), flows along pathways in the body called meridians. From a TCM standpoint, if the flow of qi along these meridians is blocked or unbalanced, illness can occur. Causes of imbalance are thought to involve: • External forces, such as wind, cold, or heat. • Internal forces, such as emotions of joy, anger, or fear • Lifestyle factors, such as poor diet, too little sleep, or too much alcohol. TCM is also based on the concept of Yin and Yang (opposing forces), and ill health is also a result of an imbalance in those opposing forces. The Tongue And Traditional Chinese Medicine In traditional Chinese medicine, the tongue is one of the major pillars of diagnosis. The colour, size and shape are one aspect of the diagnosis, and the tongue’s coating is another. The practitioner will also look for cracks, raised areas, whether it is quivering or still, and whether you can hold your tongue out, or if it moves around a lot. Different areas of the tongue are said in Chinese medicine to represent different parts of the body. The tip is said to represent the heart, while the middle is associated with the stomach and spleen. The rear of the tongue is connected with the kidneys, and the intestines, both small and large, the bladder and the uterus. The sides of the tongue represent the liver and gallbladder (the right side is thought to be more associated with the gallbladder and the left side with the liver). The overall colour shows the state of the blood. So what does your tongue say about you? A healthy tongue should be pink and covered with small nodules (papillae). Deviation from the norm could indicate a health problem, and you should seek advice from your health practitioner or dentist. A Tongue With A White Coating Or Spots A white tongue or white spots on your tongue could indicate: o A yeast infection or oral thrush - often linked to heavy use of antibiotics. Also common in people with autoimmune diseases or weakened immune systems and chemotherapy patients. o Leukoplakia - painless white patches caused by excess growth of cells. Can be a pre-cursor to cancer in a small number of cases. More common in smokers. o Oral lichen planus - can appear as white lacy patches on the tongue. This is an inflammatory auto-immune disease and may not be treated by your GP, who may say it will disappear on its own. A Red Tongue If your tongue is red it could be a sign of: • Vitamin deficiency - folic acid and Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause tongue soreness. • Scarlet fever - the tongue takes on a strawberry like appearance and is accompanied by a high fever. Seek advice from your GP immediately. • Geographic tongue - a map-like presentation of reddish spots on the tongue. This is harmless and should go away on its own. • Kawasaki disease - strawberry-like appearance of the tongue, accompanied by high fever. Usually seen in children aged under 5 and requires immediate medical attention. A Black And Hairy Tongue All tongues have papillae, but in some people, they grow excessively long and resemble hair. This makes them more prone to harbouring bacteria. It’s the bacterial growth that causes the papillae to take on a black appearance, hence a black and hairy tongue . This condition is very rare, though is more likely to occur in people with poor dental hygiene. A Sore Or Bumpy Tongue Reasons your tongue may be sore or bumpy can include: Trauma (such as biting your tongue or scalding it). Mouth ulcers (usually from stress). These usually heal on their own in week or two. A lump that doesn’t go away within 2 weeks could be a sign of oral cancer so should always be checked out by your GP. Smoking irritates the tongue and can cause soreness. Paying attention to your body is important. Your tongue may be telling you something about your health. It’s not an exact science, but changes to a normally healthy pink tongue may be an indication of an underlying health problem. Always seek medical attention if you are concerned about your oral health from your dentist or your GP. About the Author: Dakota Murphey enjoys sharing her experiences of living a healthy lifestyle through her blog posts. Working as a freelance writer for a multitude of different industries, when she's not writing or cooking up a storm in her kitchen she enjoys hiking and countryside walks with her family.